Interior reaching accord with Indians

Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton has killed her proposal to consolidate trust fund duties into a new agency and instead will support an option advanced by American Indians, according to official testimony on Capitol Hill.

Already, "a true flower of truth has blossomed from the bud of hope," said Neal McCaleb, Interior's assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.

Sound more poetic than political? It is simply language befitting the "apparent love fest" that was a June 26 oversight hearing, as Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, repeatedly called the gathering.

"From the vantage point of this committee, you are making history," Inouye said of the ongoing dialogue between the department and tribal leaders.

But they have not fully emerged from the morass of their thorny past.

A joint Interior/tribal leader task force is seeking common ground as it hashes out a final plan for reform. With Norton's decision, both sides now agree that Congress should charter a commission to watch over the government's trust reform, a major undertaking that includes fixing a computer system with known security flaws. They disagree, however, on what powers the group should have.

"Interior would prefer that it be advisory in nature rather than regulatory or prescriptive," Tex Hall, tribal co-chairman of the task force, said in testimony. "The tribal leadership on the task force believes that Congress should create an independent entity that is capable of exercising regulatory and oversight authority."

Norton approved the creation of the task force after tribal leaders roundly rejected her recommendation in November to form a Bureau of Indian Trust Asset Management.

Interior has held American Indian-owned lands in trust for more than 100 years, leasing the properties and processing revenue earned from farming and drilling. A group of beneficiaries filed a class action lawsuit in 1996, claiming that poor bookkeeping has prevented landowners and their descendants from determining their account balances. They estimate that as much as $10 billion is lost or missing.

Norton and McCaleb face five contempt charges in connection with the case, and lead plaintiff Eloise Cobell has asked the court to place individual trust accounts in receivership out of Interior's control. A decision is pending.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered Interior to disconnect from the Internet in December to protect data maintained under its Trust Asset and Accounting Management System, citing a report that showed hackers could easily breach the system.

Although most of the department is back online, problems remain, according to Cobell.

"We need the experts that a receiver would bring in" to fix the computer systems, she said. "I think that the entire firewall and access [issue] has not been refined [to] where we feel we can trust the inability of hackers to get in."

Norton has received approval from Congress to reprogram funds to begin implementing TrustNet, a new secure network for Indian trust data, according to her ninth status report to the court.

But those and other efforts have failed to turn the tide of resentment among American Indians.

"You cannot expect that the fox can oversee the hen house," said Sue Masten, the task force's co-chairwoman.

The committee has given the task force until July 30 to forward a solution.

In addition to creating the commission, the task force is considering suggestions that include creating a position of deputy secretary for Indian affairs.

None of those ideas will likely be fleshed out soon enough to make it on the current legislative calendar, senators said.

"We don't anticipate that this matter will be resolved in this Congress," Inouye said in closing. "Thank you very much and we hope that the love affair continues."

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